They are definitely not flowers or meteorites, nor -as far as I know- are they celebrities hiding in the undergrowth, but there are, I tell you, stars in the hedgerow!
A few years ago I was walking along an overgrown path when I was quite literally grabbed by a bramble. It was old hard growth that scratched and cut me as I tried to extricate myself. When, a few moments later, I saw a huge thick and bendy new stem also barring my way, still feeling a little put out by the first skin ripping encounter, I somewhat peevishly sliced at it with a knife, imagining I was some kind of explorer carving a path through virgin and unexplored Amazon rain forest.
After pausing to inspect my bramble blooded leg I also decided to take a closer look at the stem I’d just lashed n slashed out at. As the severed branch lay on the floor I looked first at the still growing part, now level with the hedgerow, but at eye-level. To my astonishment I saw that the cross-section I’d knifed into being revealed itself to be a beautiful star shape. Delighted as I was, the scratches no longer hurt.
For a number of years I’d been cooking these twice-hot-water-blanched young growing shoots (to remove tannins) and adding them to nettle soup, so was somewhat surprised I’d never noticed this pattern before. Given that I already candied and pickled both green and red unripe blackberries, it seemed a good idea to introduce these stars to that same process and, given how pretty they are, a few other experiments besides. Hence all the recipes below.
Three bramble stem star stars. From left to right: Candied in sweetened blackberry juice, pickled in cider, and candied in white sugar with a little vanillaThis was my 1st attempt 4 years
ago. They turned as black as liquorice, but I’ve never managed to
replicate this. They normally stay greenish or go brown
I’ve a confession to make. In the past 10 years I’ve probably candied about 40 different wild plants or plant parts. All of them, without fail, resulted in a uniquely and deliciously flavoured sweet botanical syrup at the second to last stage of the candying process. Now here’s the confession of my foolishness. For the first 5 years of these candying experiment I’d tip the contents of the pan (items to be finished off as candies and syrup) into a sieve over the sink, allowing all those wonderful syrups to disappear down the plughole. I had a one track mind, and just wanted to finish the final drying process of what remained in the sieve. The penny dropped as to what pure deliciousness I was wasting when candying Japanese knotweed. The final syrup, due probably to the mucilaginous glycoprotein content of the plant, has a texture just like honey. Indeed, I call it knotweed honey. It’s delicious! The point is though that all these sweet extracts are delicious and can be added to or used to make sorbets or ice-creams, poured on pancakes, added to meat sauces, used as a glaze for meats, used for making fruit leathers, for wine, beers, cordials etc etc etc ad absurdum. Fortunately, after 5 years of one-track-minded stupidity I realised my error.
Chickens in Trees
For the past 8 years I’ve been visiting a large grey poplar tree to have a look at the chickens roosting up in its boughs and clawing to its trunk. Normally I see such chickens doing their thing in/on willow, sweet chestnut, oak, yew, cherry and false acacia. Here’s a picture of the latest chicken I’ve been watching:
So, yes of course, I’m not talking about actual chickens but about the wonderful fungus Laetiporus sulphureus, aka chicken-of-the-woods or sulphur polypore. In this tree, one large mother fungus tends to grow every other year (occasionally in consecutive years) with several satellite fungi dotted around the trunk. This year I’ve just focused on documenting its growth, hence the photographic sequence below taken every few days over a few weeks. Alas, I missed the fungi’s very first appearance, probably 4-5 days before the initial photo in the sequence. But, fortunately, whilst out and about, I discovered another huge old and dried one on a willow, still firmly attached, from last year. I removed it all as I’ve discovered that doing so is more likely to encourage it to fruit in subsequent years. This year grey poplar COTW, next year weeping willow COTW, perhaps!
Given that I’m big into lacto-fermenting, and given also that the smaller satellite fungi were in fact still substantial in size, I decided on an experiment: my first lact-fermented fungi, and in its own salted juices. Generally lacto-fermenting is something you do with plants and is, essentially, a type of krauting. The ever knowledgeable and truly inspirational Sandor Katz, in his superb recent book The Art of Fermentation is sensibly cautious in approaching fungi for lacto-fermenting purposes. However, Sandor’s regularly updated website does document reported success. See here.
But, of course, often the best and most flavorsome way to cook an ingredient is to treat it really simply as below: COTW fried in olive and butter with garlic and seasoned with a little salt and pepper.
Now, at last, the opportunity to talk about my favourite plant, the super sexy, super nutritious, super versatile, super colourful, super tasty sea buckthorn!
Perhaps if you are familiar with the plant you’ll know that the most popularised edible parts are the tangy orange berries that crowd heavily together on the bush and that are available for foraging from late August until late January. The juice is superb for sorbet, as part of a gravy for venison, for raw soup, for dark chocolate desserts, and for the ultra tangy slap-round-the-face-whole-body-shuddering experience of drinking neat and undiluted. Indeed, Hugh Montgomery, writing for the Independent on Sunday, does justice to the juice’s extraordinary flavour intensity in describing the sea buckthorn and wild pear sorbet I served him:
“[It] may sound like a dessert but is more of a super-tart, super-sweet legal-high equivalent to inhaling five espressos, a bottle of amyl nitrate and a Haribo Tangfastics megamix in one.”
Below is a picture of me collecting the juice on 1st January. It was cold, I’d just shaved all my hair off, and found a wig left over from New Year revelries to keep my head warm. Personally I think it suits me!?
So what’s all this got to do with flying horses? Well, the nutrient content of the leaf is equally astonishing, if not more so, than the berry. Indeed, it also contains up to 24% protein, which is incredibly high for a plant! These days there are lots of crappy, but well branded, high sugar and caffeine drinks on the market. Red Bull is one. Red Bull gives you wings, so the advertising tells us. Wrong, only sea buckthorn leaves give wings! In Greek mythology the famous white flying horse Pegasus, with his beautiful wings at full stretch, would glide down to thickets of sea buckthorn and feast on the leaves. As yet I’ve not tried them as a solid food, but since the 1st may I’ve been experimenting with the oxidation of herbal tea leaves, in the manner of producing black tea. I drew up a list of 24 plants to work with. So far I’ve covered:
willow, bramble, ash, japanese knotweed, nettle, oak, beech, dog rose, hawthorn, sea buckthorn, birch, mugwort, fig, fennel, sow thistle, and goji.
And am yet to experiment with:
dandelion, bilberry, vervain, wood avens, passion flower, skullcap, ginko, yarrow.
Sea buckthorn leaf tea is in my top 3 so far. I can’t get enough of it.
This article provides a good overview of its wonderful benefits.
The picture sequence below shows several sea buckthorn tea related things including: The plant; the plant in increasing detail; a basket of freshly harvested leaves; the dried leaves; a selection of oxidized and dried herbal teas; a glass of oxidized sea buckthorn tea (the dark one), and unoxidized au natral tea (the light coloured one).
I gathered a year’s supply. In terms of weight that’s 6.45 kg (1.8 kg dry weight); in terms of picking time (I person) that’s two hours, which is relatively quick – although drying also takes two days in the dehydrator.
Part of the reason for collecting and drinking all these nourishing teas is that, after frustratingly not reaching a crowd fund I’d set up to help finance a project to live entirely on foraged and wild food for the year (intending to beginning on the May 1st), I thought I’d pick myself up from the immense disappointment and gather my energies together for another funding drive so I can begin, all being well, later this year. To that end, since May 1st I’ve spent over 3 weeks being 99% wild and vegan in my diet. I’ve also been swimming 5 days a week and doing lots of astanga yoga. I feel absolutely great! BUT to a very large part, as well as all the wonderful teas, one plant has been my absolute savior: Pine, or to be more specific, pine pollen.
I’ve also prepared the latter in wild apple apple syrup infused with elder flower and kept the immature pine flowers in the syrup. It’s great fun combining different plants such as pine flowers and those of elder that are in season ans at their best at the same time.
Shown in collection box. If drying to release the pollen it’s essential that the flowers are spread out in a single layer on newspaper in a warmish and dry room. If left to dry as in the picture, the pollen will drop but can end up congealing in dampness below with mould developing. I speak from experience)!
For the past week I’ve been starting the day by liquidising 4 pollen laden flowers in spring water before leaving the house to do 40 lengths in the pool.
The results are astonishing in terms of my energy levels. Interestingly, a few weeks ago I ate 3 flowers for the first time – simply because I enjoyed the look of them. That night I couldn’t get to sleep at all. A couple of days later Miles Irving of Forager knocked on my door. We used to work together 8 years ago. After talking about foraging related things he pulled out a bag and said, “have you seen these?”. Indeed I had, two days before. Their potential food use was a discovery for Miles too and he’d already started selling them to top restaurants. I asked if he’d eaten any and had had trouble sleeping. On both counts the answer was “yes”. I told him that I’d read that consuming pine pollen can increase ones cortisol levels and that can lead to insomnia.
I’m not a trained herbalist, and if one at all, I’m an ad hoc herbalist. On the other hand I’m becoming increasingly interested in bringing important herbals into the regular diet as food. Pine pollen amongst other things I’m incorporating (such as turkey tail fungi) into my diet on a regular basis is a good example.
If you Google the herbal aspects of pine pollen you’ll find a lot of good information. Essentially, although women are also said to benefit from taking it, its main use seems to be to increase testosterone levels and thereby energy and libido. It does!
For that purpose a tincture is said to work very well. Actually, until today, I’d not made a tincture for 15 years. A month or so ago I read Portland based forager delightful new book documenting her urban foraging adventures. It’s called Dandelion hunter; I even wrote a short review of it on Amazon. She mentions tinctures quite a lot so that really inspired me to get going and start doing more myself.
Here are a couple of good videos by fellow forage, American Arthur Haines:
If you fancy collecting pine pollen, all species are said to be good. Generally it’s mid season for pollen hear in the South East of England. Some species are still at the immature flower stage whereas most of the Scots pine have shed the majority o their pollen now.
A top tip, that may seem somewhat odd, but a good one – especially for urban foragers, is to check out your local large cemetery for pine trees. You can often find a really good range of species there. In the past 2 weeks I’ve come across about 10 different species and am starting to have fantasies about getting the following book, as sometimes it can be hard to know what species you are looking at:
Flowers sizes vary immensely so if Scots pine (or another pine with relatively small flowers spices) is all you have locally, that’s fine. But if you search around a bit before deciding to harvest you might find some huge ones that make pollen harvest much easier.
All this, the pine pollen, flying horse tea experiments, chickens in trees and in my stomach, as well as working closely with bramble has left me feeling wonderfully inspired creatively. Inspired mainly by the secret and unnoticed wonders of nature. Indeed, until a few years ago I’d not even noticed pine flowers with any conscious awareness. Even if you don’t wish to collect pollen, the trees are definitely worth visiting just just “to stand and stare” in Wordsworthian appreciation and wonder.
A couple of weeks ago I was out in the woods collecting beech leaves for tea and to make that classic and delicious alcoholic drink beech leaf noyau. It was one of those woods where the predominant ground cover is bramble. This is not where you’re likely to find big stems suitable for cutting cross-sectional star sharps (sunnier habitats are right for that), but you will come across nature’s own very best graffiti artists Stigmella aurella (repeat the name several times and enjoy its sound!); aka the larvae of the bramble leaf miner moth.
To my aesthetic sensibilities these are exquisitely beautiful in their seemingly glorious and random giddy perambulations. Each leaf seems like part of a secret alphabet or a mysterious sentence waiting to be deciphered. I walked for hours reflecting on eating a 100% wild food diet for an entire year, reflecting on my only minimal success at fund raising, and felt uplifted by the words that seemed to reach out to me from each magnificently graffiti mined leaf.
Several large leaves appeared, with instructions that were barely decipherable to my untrained heart-mind. But it appeared to say:
” You must come having prepared. Fast for a week drinking only bramble and nettle leaf tea. Return to these woods on the next full moon and sit in meditation through the night. Meditate upon the questions you have for us.”
So I did. My questions were:
“What will the future hold for humanity?”
“Will I be able to fund my year long wild food project?”
As together the first dawn chorus songs and light’s grainy recollection of day grew in intensity to a crescendo of clarity, so too did the silver sentenced words of Stigmella. Wise, helpful and hopeful words.
To the first question they said: ” Human beings, as we do, mine nature, but they do it not as we do. Your deep sense of disconnection from yourselves, from others, from nature leads you to mine Nature with disrespectful and aggressive abandon, without awareness, without the consciousness that the world is your flesh and blood. Humanity dreams of sustainability, be that through harnessing transdimentional energy, zero-point energy, nuclear fusion and by other means. This is a noble goal. But such desires and explorations even if fulfilled will be worthless unless humanity pays equal attention to harnessing love and awareness, consciously striving and simply allowing greed, self-hatred, selfishness, anger, and all other forms of disconnection from the reality as it is to become the new reality. These connective qualities are love, compassion, understanding, respect. And yet, at this moment, all is as it should be.”
Those last words affected me first with confusion, then denial, followed by appreciation an a deep, relaxed and relieved sense of well being.
To the second question they scribbled: “There is conflict between your heart and mind. Year heart knows all will be well, but your mind is anxious, tense, too forceful, leading to frustration and lack of balance. You are challenged on many levels but must hold firm to your intentions. Until our day of metamorphoses transforms us, we too must mine perpetually, as you must. Keep mining for support and it will come. Do not give up, ever!”
Feeling inspired by their clarity and honest appraisal of the situation I decided to return home via a plant whose very name is Honesty. Although Honesty (Lunaria annua) is a beautiful plant, its honesty in presentation only applies to one color, the gorgeous purple-lilac of it’s flowers. Beneath this, or at least moving sideways with a little alchemical magic in the realm of pH adjustment, reveals a hidden range of colours. These are just what James and I need for The Foraged Book Project
In the gallery below you can see the plant growing at the woodland edge, the flowers I collected, and the colour pigment extracted after a 1 hour boil.
Then comes the magic, and with artistic talent equivalent to and, as ever, inspired by bramble the leaf miner, I changed the pH and down, up and down…..
So if anybody has access to a Ceanothus that would like to help with the book project (and be mentioned in the book), I’d be enormously grateful if you could send me some fresh of dry flower cuttings. The more the better!
As for Lunaria, the flowers are all but finished now. But before it’s too late, and if you get the chance try the young seed pods of this tasty member of the cabbage family before they become too tough. May is the best time to forage for these but I ate lots yesterday (8th June), still lovely and tender simply because the growing season is behind this year due to the cold. The young seed pods are excellent in a salad, pickled or cooked like mange tout. Most commonly I find green pods, but occasionally you stumble upon purple ones.
I’ll be rebooting the funding drive for the 100% Wild Food Year project (link to old campaign) , including a new crowd fund with a breakdown of costs and an itinerary for the year – including how you can get involved. See if you can help I would be so grateful!